In February, 1915, six months into the world’s greatest conflict, Toronto became gripped with a local drama: A British maid, Carrie Davies, shot and killed her employer, a member of the prominent Massey family. Reported on the front pages of the city’s six newspapers, the case quickly became a national story, eclipsing war coverage. The trial and its extraordinary outcome are worth remembering, as apparent from Charlotte Gray’s engaging new book, The Massey Murder.
A bestselling biographer and social historian, Gray tackles a criminal case for the first time. She has previously told us about prominent people (Alexander Bell) and major events such as the Yukon Gold Rush. But the 18-year-old maid at the centre of this book was one of thousands of domestics employed in Toronto households. Davies’s personal papers (if there were any) did not survive, but the book is not about her obscure life. Gray’s book tells a larger story about her trial and Canadian society of a century ago. It transports the reader to Toronto during its industrial boom: “This book is a story about Toronto in the early 20th century, a fast-changing and divided community in the process of reinvention, and about Canada as it embarked on a century of dramatic evolution.”
The victim, Charles Albert (Bert) Massey, was a grandson of the pioneering industrialist whose name “was stamped on Toronto’s largest factory, on millions of pieces of agricultural machinery” he designed. Hart Massey’s implements transformed Canadian agriculture as early as the 19th century and were shipped to markets from South America to the Middle East. But the grandson inherited neither his family’s ambition nor fortune: He sold cars at the Studebaker dealership.
In the days when cars were assembled with American parts in Walkerville, near Windsor, and newspapers thrived, Toronto had three morning and three evening papers. The Evening Telegram, voice of the working masses, and the Toronto Daily Star, representing capitalist interests, vied for circulation. The Massey name, an implication of sex scandal and a violent crime gave the case instant publicity. Davies became a celebrity when the rival publications began to print opposing accounts of what happened and who “the real victim” was.
The newspapers had plenty to speculate about. Davies shot her unsuspecting and unarmed master outside his house. Although she claimed self-defence, there was no physical assault and no rape. If found guilty of murder, Davies could be sent to the gallows; a verdict of manslaughter could earn life imprisonment. So her case received enormous attention: Crowds even attended pretrial hearings. What is more, popular sympathy sided with the servant.
It was an open secret of the day. Domestic servants, usually young female immigrants, were vulnerable to sexual abuse; when dismissed, many ended up on the streets. But Davies, whose sister lived in Toronto, was better off. The only servant in a small household of three, she was paid $14 to $16 a month, which translates into $1,400 in today’s funds, an average salary for modern live-in Canadian nannies. (Gray’s claim that Davies received “meagre” wages and was overworked is unconvincing.) In fact, Davies was well treated until one day, with his wife absent, her master tried to seduce her.
One of Toronto’s most eminent courtroom lawyers, Hartley Dewart, represented Davies pro bono. To prove a near-impossible claim of self-defence, Dewart produced a strong narrative with his client’s virginity at its centre. Canada was still influenced by Victorian morality and an unmarried woman’s “sexual innocence was as good as an alibi.” Dewart exploited contemporary bias to the full; he also assured selection of middle-aged and conservative jurymen.
Detailed newspaper accounts convey the heightened atmosphere of the trial and Dewart’s theatrical defence, reminiscent of Richard Gere’s virtuoso performance in Chicago. Dewart “razzle-dazzled” the jury with patriotic war rhetoric, describing the British maid as loyal to her sweetheart soldier fighting in France, and a near-heroine. In contrast, Massey’s attempted rape and a lewd sexual proposition to a virgin allowed his character assassination. As the lawyer told the “spellbound” jury, “It was not manslaughter, it was brute slaughter.” It took the jury only 30 minutes to acquit Davies of her murder charge, a verdict met with a “tremendous cheer” from the gallery. But the day after, The New York Times ran a sobering article, “Unwritten Law in Canada,” describing the result as unprecedented in Canadian jurisprudence.
The case did not influence future trials, since “no decision was made on a point of law.” But today it exposes Toronto’s entire societal assumptions about class and gender. The Toronto of 1915 had two separate justice systems. “The weaker sex,” believed incapable of serious crime, was treated almost like youth offenders today.
Gray has written a social history and a historical drama: Her book even opens with a “list of characters.” But Gray’s cast involves meticulously researched historical figures, whose behaviour she depicts with psychological insight. Narrated with a great sense of presence, irony, and verve, this book recreates a vanished world of Canadian jurisprudence and politics, invests it with life, and makes it memorable.